“Seeing Through” Roasts

About 10 years ago I participated in a cupping in Seattle of 20 Panamanian coffees from an online auction.  I had a very different tasting experience from that of the other professionals in the room that day.  While the coffees on display were all clean and high quality, I found ranking them unusually difficult because the quality of the sample roasts varied so much.

Most of the roasts were baked and roast development on the table varied wildly.  Some samples benefited from having been roasted well, while other samples were flat, roasty, or vegetal.  I quietly polled several people in the room, and no one else seemed to notice the problem, or to care.  Several of those “professionals” thought I was just “too picky.”  Funny, I thought being picky was the point of cupping green for purchase.  Coffee pros have called me “too picky” many times, most notably for criticizing poorly designed, trendy equipment, years ago for weighing the water in a cupping, and often for remarking about rancidity in coffee.  I think one professional calling another “too picky” about quality usually says more about the judge than the judged.

I realized that day that my experience of coffee differs from that of most other professionals on a regular basis.  Compared to most, I'm relatively more tuned in to extraction and roast quality, and less tuned in to green quality.  Please don't misunderstand: I'm plenty picky about green quality, but I have no interest in drinking a poorly-roasted coffee just because the green was scored 89.  My experience drinking third-wave coffee makes me think I'm in the minority.

For me, the “noise” of bad roasting often gets in the way of my ability to enjoy a coffee and to “see through” to the quality of the green.  It's still easy enough to rank a poorly roasted 89 over a well-roasted 86,  but when you’re deciding between a few lots of similar quality (let’s say they’re all 86's and 87’s), and the roast quality of the samples varies quite a bit, how do you know if, and how much, the roast quality is influencing your buying decision?

Given that we must roast green coffee to evaluate its flavor, there’s no way to completely separate what cup traits are due to “roast” and which are due to “green.”  Yet, when we buy green coffee, we choose lots by cupping roasted samples, and seem to largely ignore the effect of the roast on the traits expressed in the cup.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen professionals choose among coffees with nearly identical green scores, and select the one that happened to have been roasted best, while believing they chose the best lot of green.

I’d like to speculate that there are two separate issues at play here:

1. Some pros “see through” roast and extraction to the green quality better than others, while others are more tuned in to roast and extraction quality.  The “see-through” types make better green buyers, while the roast/extraction obsessives probably make better roasters.

  2. Many green-buying decisions are influenced by variations in roast quality among samples, but few seem to notice or talk about it. (Variation in extraction quality is usually not an issue in cupping.)

I’ve had dozens of clients who, prior to hiring me, said “I’m very happy with my roasting but simply want to see if there are ways to improve a little.”  Many of those clients were very skilled at evaluating green coffee, but somehow didn’t notice that they routinely baked or underdeveloped roasts, and didn’t bring out the full potential of their lovely green coffees.  While working together, all of those clients eventually had an “aha” moment when they began to understand what baking was doing to their coffees’ sweetness, and what underdevelopment was doing to their coffees’ fruitiness.

The good news is that, like green evaluation, identifying roast defects is learnable.  The bad news is that most of us don’t know what we don’t know, and it’s a skill almost all of us could, and should, improve.

I have a friend whose palate for green I hold in the highest regard.  His sense of smell is extraordinary, and he “sees through” roasts and extractions like no one else I know.  However, his enjoyment of a coffee is relatively unaffected by roast and extraction quality. (He does have a strong preference for lighter roasts, just not as much as for the quality of that light roast.) He and I couldn’t be more different in that way; few things in coffee disappoint me more than ordering a 90+ point Kenya and being served a sour, baked cup with mere hints of the massive, ripe fruit that could have been.  That sour, baked cup is the norm in third-wave coffee, often at the bargain price $6 for that disappointing experience :). I’d gladly pay $18 per cup for a Kenya done well, rather than buying three cups and throwing them all out in frustration.  (That's a typical day of cafe-hopping in any big city for me.)


Diagram Key:

The “Roast” circle contains qualities that can be brought out of any green coffee to a similar degree by roasting. The “Green” circle includes qualities that are not available from all coffees. The Intersection of the circles contains traits that all coffees offer to varying degrees, and whose expression is enhanced or muted by roasting.

I’ve created this diagram to begin a discussion about how to differentiate which cup qualities are due to “roast” and which are due to “green.”  Of course, all of the qualities in the diagram derive from roasting green coffee, so I'm abusing Mr. Venn's elegant creation a little.  I realize these classifications are highly debatable, so please take them in stride.

I’d love your comments on this issue… I’m sure my perspective is skewed by being more sensitive to roast and extraction than I am to green, at least compared to most other professionals.  I'm especially interested in reading comments by those who are more green-sensitive.


If you’re keen to discuss this topic and more like it, and happen to be Europe next month, I’m offering Roasting Masterclasses in Budapest on June 12th and 13th. Click here for details